Vice's mystery drug addict got addicted to opioids the way most people do -- by taking prescription pills recreationally.
Speaking Freely to the camera while disguised with a makeshift mask made from newspaper clippings and a voice-changer that inflected his uptalk with a resonating low end, the self-admitted addict went into detail about how he began experimenting with narcotic painkillers.
Like many of the millions of Americans who find themselves physically and psychologically dependent on opioids, the mystery addict didn't score the drugs on the street; he scored them from his own medicine cabinet.
"My girlfriend at the time had, she had a problem with her knee, and so she was in immense pain all the time with her knee," he said. "And she had painkillers that she was like rationing out. She was just trying to get through the next couple of months until she had knee surgery."
The addict, who says he self-medicates to reach "oblivion," reached a point where he was indifferent to his girlfriend's suffering.
"I stole a bunch of those painkillers," he admitted. "I would sit in bed next to her when she didn't have any painkillers, and watch her be in pain consistently."
Every 30 days, he said, the cycle would begin anew when the prescription was refilled.
"And when she would get a new batch of painkillers, I would steal painkillers right out of there," he said. "And I would hide them and I would take them just for fun. And then when she would be like, 'I thought I had more painkillers than this.' I would just lie profusely. I would just lie 100 percent, that I totally didn't take any."
The masked addict explained how he rationalized his behavior and the suffering he inflicted on his then-girlfriend by stealing her medicine.
"I felt very guilty at the time, but at the same time, I felt like I needed them," he said. "I was in a state myself where I felt like I wasn't going to get through my life without them."
Opioid addiction has become a national epidemic, fueled by the ease with which prescription pills are acquired and the willingness of some doctors to prescribe them even for minor injuries. While painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone are synthetic opioids, they're chemically similar to heroin.
But the pills lack the stigma and the negative imagery associated with heroin abuse; taking them does not involve using burnt spoons or needles, or leaving track marks at injection sites. To some abusers, experts say, the fact that they're simply popping pills could lead them to believe they're dealing with a less serious or less addictive substance.
That, combined with the ubiquity of pain medication, has created the conditions for the epidemic. Prescriptions for opioid narcotics processed by American retail pharmacies tripled between 1991 and 2011, according to a prescription audit by the National Institutes of Health.
And 32 percent of all prescriptions are obtained by people abusing the drugs, according to San Francisco-based medical information company Castlight Health.
While a series of recent laws and educational efforts about the problem have helped cut down on the number of prescriptions doctors issue, thousands of users turn to heroin when they can't obtain pills, NIH data show.
Combined, prescription painkillers and heroin were faulted in 29,467 overdose deaths in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. That figure represents 62 percent of all overdose deaths in the U.S. that year.
Vice's mystery addict said he turns to drugs and alcohol to deal with anxiety, depression and other problems.
"I think that most people just want to escape their life," he said. "Most people just want to take the edge off their life."
Quitting isn't easy, especially when dealing with a class of drugs that physically punishes its abusers for cutting off the happy chemicals that flood the brain's opioid receptors. Many addicts fear withdrawal, which wreaks havoc on the body in the form of intense physical and psychological pain.
But a range of new treatment options have been approved by the FDA in recent years, treatments that keep patients comfortable and prevent their newly deprived opioid receptors from going haywire when they stop taking the drug.
Recovery.org operates a helpline that can connect users who want to quit with the resources they need to do it successfully. Call 888-319-2606 to reach a counselor. And if you don't want drug addiction helplines in your call history, or don't have the funds to pay a cell phone bill, try Rebtel's international calling app that lets you call more than 52 countries for free without the need of internet. You can check it out at https://www.rebtel.com/en/speakfreely/
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